THE broad outline of a postwar security arrangement for the Middle East is being sketched in London, and Britain has begun commending it to fellow members of the 12-nation European Community. The proposed plan would require leading countries of the Gulf to bear the greater part of the burden of maintaining regional peace and stability after the defeat of Iraq.
But it would also commit European countries to the pre-positioning of military equipment in the region and to continuing ``show-the-flag'' visits by ships and planes of EC countries long after Kuwait was evacuated by Iraqi forces.
The British government's view of what should happen after fighting ends was put forward in speeches and interviews last weekend by Douglas Hurd, Britain's foreign secretary.
Mr. Hurd attended a meeting of European Community foreign ministers yesterday (the first since the Gulf war began) and spelled out his belief that if there is to be peace in the Middle East it must rest on ``three pillars'': Gulf security, progress on the Palestinian problem, and regional arms control, with emphasis on banning chemical and nuclear weapons.
British opposition leaders are thought likely to swing behind the view expressed by the foreign secretary that in future there should be no permanent British military presence east of Suez.
Hurd told a rally of the ruling Conservative Party last Saturday that Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Pakistan should be invited to play a part in working out a lasting peace settlement. Later, he said, they should be helped by the richer, oil-producing countries of the region, principally Saudi Arabia, to come up with a joint regional security policy.
He singled out Egypt as ``a country with a great many men and a military force, but with strong economic problems,'' and suggested that, along with its friendly neighbors, it could act as ``guarantor'' of a Middle East peace. Hurd's comments reflect a wish by Prime Minister John Major to have a peace strategy ready before fighting ends.
British officials stress that strong emphasis must be placed initially on putting Kuwait back on its feet and persuading its neighbors that responsibility for preventing future infringements of frontiers should rest with them. Saudi Arabia had an important role to play in helping to finance future security measures in the Gulf, the officials say.
``In the aftermath of the war, there will be a strong instinct in Britain and the United States to bring the troops home, and that will happen,'' Hurd said. ``Later, if there was a sensible security structure in the area, we should be prepared to consider ship and aircraft visits, and the pre-positioning of equipment.''
The starting point for a new regional security arrangement, according to British officials, would be the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Egypt is thought to be a natural addition to this group, which later could begin to work out new arrangements with other neighboring countries, including Iraq (under a friendly government) and Iran.
Hurd said on Sunday: ``If there was to be regional burden- sharing, Saudi Arabia has to play a leadership role.''
By stepping in with constructive proposals about a future Middle East peace, the British government is trying to preempt two potential problems, officials say.
In Britain, Mr. Major hopes to forestall suggestions by the Labour Party opposition that the coalition members want to resurrect ``east of Suez'' policies abandoned in the 1970s. These rested on the idea that Britain had a strategic role to play in the region by deploying its armed forces there more or less permanently.
If the government proposed such an approach, it would shatter the all-party consensus in the war against Iraq. A Labour Party official, asked to comment on Hurd's remarks at the weekend, said: ``There is nothing in them to quarrel over.''
Major's second hope is that Britain will be able to spearhead a united EC policy approach to the Gulf once the fighting ends.
Hurd and Defense Minister Tom King made it clear last week that they were unhappy about the reluctance of some EC governments to offer more than token support for the campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Their officials said at the weekend that the Europeans were more likely to support a Gulf peace plan that placed the stress on countries in the region playing a full part rather than one that rested heavily on sustained military activities by EC countries.
David Howell, Conservative chairman of the influential House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs, said yesterday that enlisting the help of EC governments in support of such an approach was ``better than promoting grandiose and unworkable plans'' for a common European foreign policy.